MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Every branch of military service has a rich history, steeped in as much hard fact as fiction and lore.
Trying to separate reality from myth is hard for your average Marine. While all the other services can trace their songs’ lineage, the history of the “Marines Hymn” still holds mysteries for the experts. The Hymn is also commonly acknowledged to be the oldest anthem of all the U. S. services.
The Army’s song, “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” was first composed in 1908 by Army 1st Lt. Edmund L. Gruber, an artillery officer. The song was originally called “Caisson Song.” It stayed as an artillery march until it was dubbed the official song of the Army and paired with new lyrics in 1956.
“The U.S. Air Force” was originally composed in 1938 by Robert Crawford as part of a contest for the then-Army Air Division. Lyrics were changed in 1947 for the newly-formed U. S. Air Force.
“Anchors Aweigh” was written in 1906 by Charles A. Zimmerman, for a class in the Naval Academy. Over the years, it was adopted as the Navy’s official song.
The “Marines Hymn,” on the other hand, dates back to the mid-1800s. Most of the information on the composer and writer is lost in the sands of time.
According to lore, the songwriter was a Marine on duty in Mexico shortly after the Mexican–American War. Legend has it that he took the first verse, “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of Tripoli.” from the Marine Corps flag, which displayed those very words at that time.
The tune associated with the hymn also raises many questions because the composer isn’t known and the inspiration is still disputed.
Throughout history, composers will hear a tune they like and tweak to suit their purposes. To confirm this is where the Corps’ hymn came from, historians delved into correspondence between military officials of the time to try to confirm the origin of the famous tune.
In 1919, Warrant Officer John Philip Sousa wrote “The melody of the ‘Halls of Montezuma’ is taken from Offenbach’s comic opera, ‘Fenevieve de Brabant’ and is sung by two gendarmes,” according to information available on the Marine Corps Logistics Command website, http://www.logcom.usmc.mil.
“Major Richard Wallach, said that in 1878, when he was in Paris, France, the aria to which the Marines Hymn is now sung was a very popular one.” Wallach also believed the hymn’s “aria” was from the opera “Genevieve de Brabant.”
But even with this correspondence, neither origin can be confirmed on this basis alone.
Although the Marines Hymn made an appearance around the 1800s, it didn’t have an official version until 1929, when then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune authorized the hymn as we know it, except the first verse. The original fourth line read “On the land as on the sea.” That line wasn’t changed to “In the air, on land, and sea,” until 1942.
During the 100 years the hymn has existed, many interesting stories around it have surfaced. Some fact, some fiction, and others still up for debate.
One such story claims that Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during WWII, and an admirer of the Marine Corps, was said to have showed his respect for U.S. Marines by reciting our hymn.
Another story, confirmed by the Library of Congress, states that on Aug. 16, 1918, an issue of the Stars and Stripes mentions a French officer mistaking Marines for a group of native Montezuma soldiers because of that first verse.
“A wounded officer from among the gallant French lancers had just been carried into a Yankee field hospital to have his dressing changed. He was full of compliments and curiosity about the dashing contingent that fought at his regiment's left,” as written in the article.
“A lot of them are mounted troops by this time, he explained, for when our men would be shot from their horses, these youngsters would give one running jump and gallop ahead as cavalry. I believe they are soldiers from Montezuma. At least, when they advanced this morning, they were all singing ‘From the Halls of Montezuma, to the Shores of Tripoli.’”
No matter where it came from, or why, or who wrote it, or who first hummed the first notes, the hymn is as recognizable and ingrained in the spirit of the Corps as are the dress blues, or Eagle, Globe and Anchor, or brotherhood itself.